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Leadership & Management
How To Build Emotional Intelligence And Be A Better Leader

When you think of the best leader you have worked with, what adjectives come to mind?

For me, I think of those leaders who helped me grow at pivotal moments in my career, and who blended competence and care to create an environment where everyone around them had an opportunity to thrive.

How did they learn to be so great? What set them apart? Emotional intelligence is the answer. 

Emotional intelligence is critical to effective, human-focused leadership. It can be the difference between success and failure, and is the hallmark of most of the exceptional leaders you will encounter in your career, yet only around 36% of people have mastered this ability.

Have you ever worked with a boss that was just terrible? I have, and I blame it on their low emotional intelligence. Their erratic and often insensitive behaviour was demotivating and, eventually, our entire team fell off the rails. 

Working with this leader took such a toll that I eventually decided that the best course of action was to start investing my time, skills, and energy outside of the company in order to stay engaged and learning (really, it was about not getting bored or angry and always having something interesting to work on). 

The situation was emotionally draining yet also highly educational, in a strange way. It showed me how important it is to have managers who are emotionally intelligent and can handle themselves and the perceptions of others across difficult situations and rapid change. 

This article will help you to better understand emotional intelligence and apply emotional intelligence towards becoming a more effective leader of people.

We'll cover:

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence (EI or EQ) is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one's own emotions and those of others. 

The term was coined by researchers Peter Salavoy and John Mayer and later popularized in the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence written by psychologist Daniel Goleman. Goleman argued that emotional intelligence could be just as important, if not more so (2x, actually), than IQ when it comes to achieving success. 

In his book, he discussed topics such as emotional self-awareness, impulse control and empathy which are all necessary for a person to succeed.

Emotional intelligence is a powerful tool for gaining insight into people's behavior and the impact it can have on relationships. It includes:

  • Knowing how to read the emotions of others
  • Having empathy for other’s feelings and needs
  • Recognizing personal triggers for emotion-based reactions
  • Managing highs and lows in moods
  • Expressing feelings appropriately
  • Using humor to defuse tension in conflicts
  • Finding ways to nurture one's own well-being.

Emotional intelligence is described across two key areas: self and social. In the context of self, we learn to see ourselves accurately and manage our natural reactions. In the social domain, we see others accurately, practice empathy, and build positive relationships. 

emotional intelligence infographic
Adapted from original source.

Being emotionally intelligent is essential for creating fulfilling relationships and thriving in an ever-changing world.

If you have had a manager that didn’t seem to get you, overstated their capability, or didn’t seem to care about your struggles at work, you have experienced a leader who was low in emotional intelligence.

Conversely, if you have experienced a leader who understood you, motivated others, and navigated the organization with ease and influence, it’s likely you have experienced a highly emotionally intelligent leader. 

At this point, you may be feeling like you might not have as much emotional intelligence as you would like. That’s completely normal and I have good news for you! 

Emotional intelligence can be built and developed over time through practice. EQ is not a fixed characteristic, meaning you can improve your emotional intelligence over time with focused effort and persistence (more on this soon).

Why is Emotional Intelligence critical for leaders? 

Emotional intelligence plays a critical role in effective leadership behaviors. Studies have found that organizational success is highly correlated with the strength of emotional intelligence among team leaders.

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand their own emotional needs and can effectively manage those emotions, as well as those of the people they lead. 

This increased understanding allows leaders to be more authentic when communicating with their staff, helping to build better relationships between both team members and leadership which positively influences employee engagement.

Emotional intelligence helps leaders to make better decisions as they are able to recognize and respond to situations with greater empathy, allowing them to consider alternative perspectives and leading to better decision-making outcomes across the organization.

By being more aware of emotions in the workplace, they can create an improved working environment by recognizing when stress levels are too high and prioritizing strategies that reduce tension without sacrificing creativity or productivity.

In addition, leaders with higher emotional intelligence find it easier to build strong relationships with everyone on their teams, leading to increased innovation and loyalty.

Studying and improving EI is an integral part of any comprehensive leadership development program. By better understanding emotive reactions and being able to choose appropriate paths of action for each situation, leaders acquire this critically important skill necessary for inspiring long-term commitment from themselves and others.

The 5 Parts of Emotional Intelligence for Leaders

Throughout over 30 years of research on emotional intelligence, many different elements have been identified by various scholars, but there are five foundational elements of emotional intelligence for leaders that are most commonly recognized, including by Daniel Goleman himself.  

five elements of emotional intelligence infographic

If you’re a leader who wants to improve employee engagement and job satisfaction across your organization, developing skills in emotional intelligence will jump-start your growth journey. 

Self-Awareness

Being high in self-awareness means being conscious of one's own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as their effect on others. This means knowing what makes you tick. 

Leaders who have strong self-awareness are confident and candid. They understand themselves deeply and are aware of their unique strengths, weaknesses, and specific behaviors or habits. 

Strong self-awareness helps leaders to build meaningful relationships with others by recognizing their individual talents and personalities as well as potential opportunities. 

By being aware of one’s own thoughts and actions, a leader can foster effective communication skills that will enable them to create positive change for their team or organization.

5 ways to improve your self-awareness

Practice mindfulness

Being mindful means paying attention to your thoughts and feelings in the present moment, without judgment. This can help you become more aware of your emotions and how they influence your actions. Just scan your body. How are you feeling? What are you noticing? How are you attributing your feelings?

Seek feedback from others

Asking for feedback from colleagues, employees, or a mentor can help you gain a better understanding of how others perceive you and your actions. 

If someone looks at you an odd way after you say something, ask for insight on how that impacted them or what they thought of next. You’ll rarely know a person’s general perception of you, but you’ll always want to improve it. 

Getting feedback helps you better understand how you are perceived by others and may mean the beginning of a significant shift in your interpersonal relationships. 

Reflect on your experiences

Taking time to reflect on your experiences and how you responded to different situations can help you understand your strengths and areas for improvement. What went well that you want to replicate in the future? What are the lessons you have learned from things that have not gone according to plan? 

View failures as learning opportunities; take time to glean insights and try your best to avoid regret and shame.

Engage in self-assessment

There are many self-assessment tools and exercises that can help you identify your values, beliefs, motivations, and emotional intelligence. 

Engaging in these types of activities can help you become more self-aware and may even suggest areas of opportunity in further strengthening your EQ overall.

Seek support

If you’re struggling with self-awareness, or want to work on improving it, consider seeking the help of a coach or therapist. They can provide guidance and support as you work on becoming more self-aware.

Self-Management or Self-Regulation

Self-management or self-regulation is the ability to control your thoughts, reactions, impulses, and feelings when things happen to or around you. 

A leader who is able to regulate their emotions and behaviors is better able to handle difficult situations and maintain focus. 

Leaders highly skilled in self-management or self-regulation are able to manage their current reactions to situations in favor of achieving longer-term goals.

If you’re a leader who can handle stressful situations and confrontations effectively, and navigate toward a successful outcome, you’re likely highly skilled in self-management. 

5 ways to improve your self-management

Watch for your reactions and name them

When you’re reacting to a situation, take a moment to identify your reactions and name them. Next, decide if your reaction is what you want to happen or not.

For example, I used to get noticeably warm when something bad would happen and I felt at fault. This raised my blood pressure, discomfort levels, and triggered my amigdala—meaning my body went into fight or flight mode. This wasn’t helpful and never made the situation any better. 

By identifying my natural response, deciding and taking action to mitigate my negative reaction, I was able to begin to manage it much more effectively. 

Slow down

When your body goes into fight or flight mode you don’t think normally. In fact, it typically takes at least 20 minutes to return to normal cognitive function after this type of trauma.

Improve self-management by slowing down. Don’t make an immediate decision if you feel you are in a heightened state. Sleep on it. Clarity will come in time.

Control your self-talk

Your self-talk (which happens almost constantly) triggers chemical reactions in your body and brain that control your emotions and behavior. Improve your self-management by managing your self-talk towards happier, healthier thoughts. Avoid putting yourself down. Instead, consider what you’re learning through each experience and celebrate success along the way. 

Take breaks and prioritize self-care

It’s important for leaders to take breaks and prioritize self-care in order to manage stress and maintain their mental and physical health. This can include activities such as exercise, meditation, or spending time with loved ones. 

Taking breaks, especially sleeping, helps leaders renew and refresh their physical and cognitive abilities to tackle new challenges in the coming days.

Improve self-efficacy

Manage and regulate your reactions by believing in your capability to adapt to change and exhibit the behaviors necessary to reach your goals. By building your perception of your ability to influence and control the future, you will mitigate the pressing feeling to respond immediately with a potentially short-sighted decision, action or reaction. 

Motivation

Motivation is an integral component of emotional intelligence and is defined as the willingness to exert and maintain effort to achieve a goal or reach a desired outcome. 

It involves the ability to be motivated by personal desires or external influences such as rewards. This motivation can come from within oneself, from others, from one's environment, or from some combination of these sources.

Motivation is contagious. People like to work with people that are highly motivated and effective at achieving their goals. Leaders who are highly motivated are magnetic to colleagues and followers that are similarly motivated. 

5 ways to become more motivated

Set goals and make them visible

Managing yourself and keeping your motivation is directly linked to goal setting and goal achievement. Take time to set goals and share them with the right people. I like to set goals on a rolling basis on a flip chart and I hang the goals in my home in a high-traffic area. 

This way, I’m reminded of the goals frequently and I do a quick goal check and assessment when I have a few moments or when I’m checking off a goal! Looking at what goals you have achieved over time supports motivation, self-efficacy, and personal development.

Protect your time

Avoid over-committing to connections, events, meetings—things that do not fill your cup. 

This means that, when someone asks you to do something you’re not sure you want to do, don’t say “yes, sure, I’m free.” Instead, allow yourself time to review, consider and decline if the activity is not right for you. Try, “Let me check and get back with you.” 

There is zero shame in not engaging with people/places/things that don’t energize or grow you. You have control, use it.

Use your connections

Discuss your goals and aspirations with your friends and family. Tell them what you’re working to achieve. You’re sure to hear encouragement and might get some help or additional tools through these discussions along the way. 

The more you talk about your goals and how you are working to accomplish them, the more likely you are to see your desired result.

Re-frame for opportunity 

Sometimes unexpected things happen that we need to adapt to. When surprises pop up, consider not only the loss or negative impact of a change of plans. Instead, consider what new opportunities are created due to the change. 

Approaching change with a bend toward positivity will help you and your team maintain focus and adapt more effectively. Change is the constant, how you react matters.

Keep up the momentum

How are you doing on your goals? What opportunities have emerged from the changing environment? Keep moving forward. Your momentum and early success will help create habits that will feel automatic over time. 

For me, as we near the end of the quarter, I automatically start thinking about the next few months’ goals and start locking them in and setting them in motion. 

I also know who in my close group has also set goals because we talk about them! It's time to celebrate goal achievement with friends and keep helping each other stay motivated and move forward. 

Related read: Putting Organizations On The Path To Success Using The Cascading Goals Method

Social Awareness and Empathy

Social awareness is the ability to see or acknowledge others' emotions and seek to understand what is unique to each person and how they are feeling. It’s what helps leaders to understand emotions, examine personal biases and values, recognize cultural diversity and different life experiences, and learn how to interact responsibly with others. It involves understanding the perspective of yourself and others in order to develop an understanding of the world. 

Social awareness is key to building meaningful relationships by being aware of the beliefs, feelings, and perspectives of those around you. It can also aid in better decision-making as it develops a sense of empathy that can help you understand the perspectives and potential reactions of others. More broadly speaking, it is essential for being an empathetic leader.

5 way to improve your social awareness

Get to know people

Seems simple, but it's not always that easy! Get to know people around you at work and in life. Get to know people’s names and use them! Having your name remembered feels good, so get to know names and people to help people feel valued. 

Observe body language

People tell you so much without saying anything! Body language represents 55% of our understanding of communication. Becoming well-versed in understanding body language helps you know what’s happening without needing to be told. You’ll also learn to pick up on cues from those around you and adapt accordingly.

Give focused attention

When engaging with others, minimize distractions and multi-tasking; focus on being present and giving focused attention to others. Be in the moment and focus on what is happening in front of you and with you. 

People notice when you’re not paying attention (yes, even via video chat) and will often shift the tone of their conversation to a more surface-level discussion as they sense you are not fully engaged in the conversation. 

If you don’t give focused attention, you might also miss key cues that can make or break a conversation.

Develop cultural awareness

Being socially aware means understanding and interpreting actions through the lens of the context and culture. This could mean national or organizational culture. Feedback from a colleague based in India could actually mean something very different than if the feedback had come from an American perspective.

Get to know the nuances across the cultures you interact with. I find that international travel helps develop cultural awareness deeply and rapidly. Another method I’ve found successful is finding a trusted, emotionally intelligent colleague and asking questions about what words, phrases or sentiments mean across cultures from their perspective. 

I’ve learned a significant amount about interacting with people from different backgrounds from my Indian and British colleagues; often they’re the most fun conversations as well! 

Test your skills

Go people watching or watch TV with sound and subtitles off to develop your skills in reading a room and a set of body language as a whole. What is going on? What did you see? What did you know was going to happen before it did? 

People give so many different tells or cues as to what is going on physically, through body language and facial expressions. If you learn to read the room and facial expressions in real-time you develop a spidey sense that can be used as a secret weapon in relationship management. 

Relationship Management or Social Regulation and Social Skill

Relationship management is your ability to understand yourself and your emotions in order to manage your interactions and relationships with others. This skill is extremely important, especially in navigating change, conflict, and the emotions of others. 

The most effective leaders have the awareness and self-control to manage their relationships and control their interactions with others. By controlling their social interactions, high EQ leaders can present a positive outlook when appropriate, meet the emotional needs of their colleagues and ease communication, collaboration, and effective decision-making.

5 ways to improve relationship management

Share and be curious

Being clear about yourself, how you’re feeling, and why you want to achieve what you’re going after will help others understand you. The more they understand and trust you, the more they will share about themselves. Vulnerability builds trust and trust allows for more authentic relationships. Consistency is key. 

Seek feedback and take responsibility

Leaders should be open to feedback from others as it can help them to identify areas where they need to improve. They should also be willing to take responsibility for their actions and be open to learning from their mistakes. 

Consider a 360-degree feedback exercise with your team and colleagues. When implemented successfully, 360-degree feedback can dramatically improve emotional intelligence overall.

Use common courtesy

Be nice. The little things like “please” and “thank you” do still matter. People like it when you are nice to them. As a leader, it is often your job to assign and evaluate work. 

Consider how to approach these conversations with respect and gratitude rather than making your staff and colleagues feel they have been “voluntold” to do each task, especially the hard stuff. 

Explain decisions and change

When you make a decision or implement change that impacts people, be sure to help everyone understand why you made the choice or change and acknowledge any fears or concerns impacted people might have. 

If you can, ask the impacted group about their perception and preference on a decision before making it. Get ahead of this by looking forward in your strategic roadmap and considering what decisions or changes will need to be made. 

Next, work with those that will be impacted to plan, generate ideas and help everyone understand why decisions are made and change is taking place.

Care deeply, and challenge directly

Leaders often engage in what could be considered challenging conversations. When giving feedback, be direct and constructive. Show you care, but challenge your employees directly, noting your feedback is intended to assist in growth and achieving the collective goals of the group. One of my favorite models for this is Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

emotional intelligence is a superpower

Do consider yourself a leader with high emotional intelligence? Does someone specific come to mind when thinking about who around you has high emotional intelligence? 

The importance of emotional intelligence in leaders cannot be articulated effectively through words—one must experience it. If you’re fortunate enough to work with leaders and colleagues of high emotional intelligence, relish in that environment. You’re lucky! 

If you’re experiencing an environment or individuals with low emotional intelligence, pick a few of the practices from each section above and try to strengthen these elements.

What have you noticed? What is easier or working better for you now? Let me know in the comments and be sure to subscribe to People Managing People for further tips on how to become a better leader.

Some further resources:

By Liz Lockhart

Liz Lockhart is an Operations Leader heading up strategic change, alignment, and growth projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Portland (where she now teaches as an Adjunct Professor) and is pursuing a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership at the University of Southern California. Liz is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) by HRCI and has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting and technology firms. The best place to reach Liz is on LinkedIn.